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Let there be ... light!

Winston Churchill once said, ‘success is going from one failure to another without losing enthusiasm.’ That sums up my journey in learning to shoot the stars. Recording star trails is one of the most complex genres in modern photography. One winter I ventured outside into the frigid, moonless night EIGHT TIMES, before I tasted success. Here's the final, composite image I had visualised. While the Almighty spun a million stars around the night sky, I was a mere mortal spinning steel wool in a copycat circle of fire.

Here's how I did it:

During the weekend I made a spur-of-the moment decision, jumped into my Honda CRV, and headed south to Nelson Lakes National Park, an hour's drive. (I normally take months to be spontaneous.)

5.00pm: I arrived at my destination, set up my DSLR and focused it. The jetty on Lake Rotoiti was my home for 16 hours, as I defended my tripod in its central position, the camera pointing south toward the Southern Celestial Pole. According to my compass, this was somewhere off the end of the jetty, near the lakehead. But first, I was tested by 50 ducks, 30 gulls, 20 eels, a dozen small children, and a boatie which took forever to move away. I roped off the wharf to prevent drunkards or dogs running into my gear. And then I was alone… 7.00pm: an hour after sundown – I finished the tea in my thermos, then shot some experimental images of myself swinging steel wool in a flaming circle. 7.45pm: Started drinking coffee from a second thermos. It was dark enough now to start shooting the stars. The night sky was spectacular, with no noise pollution, and no clouds. I did some test exposures to get the correct focus, shutter speed and aperture. 8.40pm: With my intervalometer programmed, I began the main sequence of 45 long exposures, each of 5 minutes duration. This is when I had to walk away… 9.40pm: Quick check – the camera lens was still free of condensation! All systems go… 10.40pm: Checked again … nothing was gonna stop me now! I retreated to my vehicle, and caught some zeds. The temperature was a tropical 4 degrees. 3.00am: Woke up, crawled out of my nylon cocoon, and checked the camera. After five hours of continuous shooting, it had bat flatteries. All over. 3.15am: I was spinning more wire wool off the jetty, when a herd of inebriated youth arrived to watch. A heavy frost had fallen, the air was now at freezing level, so the wooden wharf was iced over. I secretly hoped the teenage idiots would slip over into the water … the writhing eels looked frighteningly hungry. 6.00am: Awoke to see a fingernail moon climb over the Arnaud Range; it’s light was feeble. Chatted to a lady who was out walking her dog. 6.54am: The sun rises on the first day of spring. This goes to my head, as I get the zany idea of jumping for joy on the jetty, which takes impeccable timing to capture on camera. 8.00am: I’ve eaten breakfast, de-rigged my camera gear, and packed the Honda. Satisfied with my night’s work, I drive home. Good morning, Nelson!

A few days later, my finished image appears on the front page of my local paper - nice to be validated.

Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, said: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up."

NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER give up. (Winston Churchill)

[ If camera settings are still confusing, enroll in my Discover Your DSLR course ]

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